Animator, professor, historian, author, producer, lecturer and Academy Award winner- John Canemaker has donned many hats throughout his illustrious career. At NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, he has shared his intimate knowledge and love of animation to guide thirty-five years’ worth of young creatives as they learn the finer points of the craft.
No matter the type of animation employed, Canemaker keenly teaches his students the fundamentals that persist. He personally knew and worked with many of the standard-bearers of the animation- including several of Disney’s Nine Old Men. But his status in the world of animation belies his humble origins and late-blooming start. Were it not for words of encouragement from a college instructor at the age of 28, his career might have taken an entirely different trajectory.
Canemaker has been a professor at NYU since 1980 and has authored nearly a dozen critically-acclaimed books on the history of animation. His animated shorts are permanently housed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Always eager to inspire the next generation, he graciously spoke to us about his career and teaching. We hope you enjoy! (This interview was done via phone and has been edited minimally for clarity).
ACR: You began your career in acting, John. When did turn your attention to animation?
John Canemaker: I started doing animation in high school while also appearing in local productions, so I could see the connection between personality animation and acting early on. But in the late ‘50s, there was just no place to go with animation. I couldn’t afford college so I tried my hand at acting. For ten years, I did TV commercials before I was drafted in the Army. When I got out, I did more commercials- about 35 national TV commercials in total.
I took the money from the G.I. Bill and the money I had made with my (residual) checks from those commercials and decided at the age of 28 to go to college. A very dynamic teacher influenced me there. She knew I had an interest in animation and offered me six credits if I went out to California to and spend a semester at the Disney Studios where they had recently opened an archive. That was in 1973 and it really changed my life. I came back to New York, I wrote articles on animation and interviewed the really great animators and became so re-interested in the form that I went to the School of Visual Arts for an evening course on animation. From there, I did work on Sesame Street and The World According to Garp and eventually I opened my own studio.
ACR: What has acting taught you about animating?
JC: For both, you have to know a lot about staging and timing. I suggest to my students that they take acting and performing classes. Get up in front of an audience and you’ll know what timing is!
ACR: Your animation students at NYU have such wonderful opportunities to take a variety of classes seldom found elsewhere, don’t they?
JC: They really do. We have 17 or more animation classes per semester. There is every kind of animation available to them from puppets and stop motion to hand drawn and CGI and pixellation. Our courses run the full gamut! The interesting thing about NYU is that we are a part of the film department at Tisch… we aren’t our own department. So our students must take general education courses and live action in addition to animation. It all melds together. What you learn in live action- story, sound, cinematography, timing- all applies to animation.
ACR: Many of your students have gone on to do such great work in the field. Do they come back to NYU and offer their insights?
JC: Oh yes! We’ve had a number of graduates who’ve gone on to Pixar and Disney and DreamWorks. They are very loyal to us. We just had Brad Schiff (puppet animator) come back to campus and speak to our students. We have graduates working in all kinds of areas of animation which is wonderful and we are so fortunate that they take an active interest in passing along their knowledge to our current students.
ACR: Do your students today differ from those you taught thirty years ago in terms of their abilities?
JC: The whole scene of animation has changed since then. There was no digital at the time when I began teaching (in 1980). Today, students are amazingly proficient and knowledgeable about the technical aspects of animating. But similar to students back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they still need advice and council on storytelling.
When they come in, so many of them already have experience with After Effects; they are well versed in how to get the picture there. It’s the characterization and narrative that needs to be tweaked. The best way to learn is to get feedback and see your work on screen.
ACR: We recently caught up with Tom Sito who, like you, is a historian of the craft as well as an animator. Has the study of animation history made you a better animator and teacher?
JC: That’s a good question. Like Tom, I feel privileged to have known some of the great animators and been friends with several of them. Anytime I draw something, I think of the inspiration and advice I got from them. I interviewed John Bray and Otto Messmer (Felix the Cat). I knew Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston of Disney’s Nine Old Men. I consider myself one of the luckiest people on the planet.
I want to give my students the knowledge they gave to me… to give them a vocabulary they can use. I can still hear Frank Thomas ask, “How can you strengthen this pose?” In other words, what’s the best way to communicate this or that with an audience?
ACR: What was it like interviewing the true legends of the craft like Frank Thomas and Chuck Jones as you did?
JC: As you probably know, most animators are down to earth people with great humility. They immediately put me at ease. I interviewed them and only wish I knew then what I know now. I think they were very candid with me. They were human beings and they were artists.
ACR: You have proven throughout your career that the most serious of issues- such as child abuse and pediatric cancer- can be tackled in animation. How is it that a medium which can make us laugh and be carefree can also make us explore the darker sides of us?
JC: I think animation is unique because it can personify thoughts and emotions. You can become the emotion. Pete Docter’s new film Inside Out (Pixar) explores the emotions inside a child’s head. He really has the right idea… that’s what animation can do. To do it in live action would be ridiculous. Anything is possible with animation. You can let your imagination go… the sky’s the limit.
ACR: Do your students choose the subject matters of their films?
JC: Yes. It’s entirely up to them to select what they want to do. Our students own their own films- they own all the rights. We support them with guidance and technique; we help them see it to fruition. It’s daunting. You need to feel free enough and safe enough to fail.
They are also encouraged to submit to film festivals. Many have their own websites and put things on Vimeo. Recruiters come here constantly to see their work. And the guests we have are amazing and eager to help our students. We had Glen Keane and Pete Doctor and Brad Schiff and Bill Plimpton just last year alone… it’s an incredible resource for them.
ACR: Speaking of incredible, what was it like hoisting that Academy Award up above your shoulders for your short animated film with Peggy Stern, The Moon and the Son?
JC: It was surreal. I never anticipated it. The film showed for about a year and was reviewed well but I never expected the Oscar. I feel so blessed and lucky.
ACR: Your latest class of animation students at NYU just graduated. What insight did you share with them as they departed for their own adventures in animation?
JC: The things they have experienced at school will stay with them for the rest of their careers. I tell them to use the contacts they’ve made here. They have many of them. Not just the faculty and students but our guest lecturers… even Glen Keane himself. They must promote themselves and get their reels in order to find work. Whatever work they do right off the bat will enable them to learn more, add to their reel and meet more people.
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.